Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Horn Blows at Midnight (Warner Bros., 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movies we finally ran were The Horn Blows at Midnight and the Abbott and Costello film from 1944, Lost in a Harem. The Horn Blows at Midnight was the butt of jokes by its star, Jack Benny, for years; it was the last feature film he ever made (in 1945, 30 years before his death!) and was a total flop at the box office. There’s a famous clip from his TV show where he drives up to a studio gate and asks to be let in by the doorman. “You might remember me,” Benny says. “I once made a little picture here called The Horn Blows at Midnight.” “Remember it?” says the doorman. “I directed it!” Surprisingly, The Horn Blows at Midnight is actually a great comedy — next to the original To Be or Not to Be it’s the best movie Benny ever made; and, like To Be or Not to Be, it’s the kind of nervy, edgy project Benny deserves credit for being willing to take on instead of being like most radio stars who did films and just duplicated their radio characterizations in their movies. Benny plays a trumpeter in a radio studio band (judging from what we hear, he plays the trumpet about as well as he played the violin) who falls asleep during a broadcast and dreams he is the angel Athanaël and is sent to earth with a golden trumpet to herald the end of the world. It’s a marvelous film, full of visual as well as aural wit (when the action shifts to Heaven — heralded by an intertitle reading, “Heaven, 1945-46” — there’s a long tracking shot across this totally immense orchestra of white-robed musicians, playing a singularly pompous and pretentious composition music director Franz Waxman must have had a lot of fun writing as a parody of Hollywood grandiosity; later, when Jack Benny is an angel on earth and sees people jitterbugging in a dance hall, asks what they’re doing, is told they’re dancing and deadpans, “St. Vitus must hear of this!”), thanks to tight direction by Raoul Walsh (who didn’t end up as a studio doorman!), a neat (if somewhat on the droll side) script by Sam Hellman and James Kern (from an “idea” by Aubrey Wisberg), excellent music by Waxman (particularly important in a story that revolves so much around music and its performance), great special-effects work (even the climax, which oddly places Benny on the side of a building doing Harold Lloyd-style gags, is impeccably staged with convincing process backgrounds) and a fine supporting cast including Alexis Smith (as Benny’s angelic girlfriend), Reginald Gardiner (as an upper-class crook), Guy Kibbee, Franklin Pangborn (as a hotel house detective — at least he was something other than a desk clerk this time!) and Margaret Dumont (as an insufferable soprano in the framing sequence that opens the film). While some of the gags probably sailed over the heads of the mass audience (it’s the sort of film, like James Whale’s The Great Garrick, which is such a connoisseur’s movie that even people who like it can see why it failed at the box office), The Horn Blows at Midnight is overall a sophisticated comedy that deserves a better reputation than it has. — 1/2/99


The Horn Blows at Midnight is a movie that was such a commercial flop when it was released that it took down Jack Benny’s film career — he never made another feature as star, though he was set to do The Sunshine Boys when he died in 1975 and his lifelong friend George Burns replaced him — and he made it the butt of jokes for years afterwards. (My favorite: on one of Benny’s TV shows he drives up to a studio gate to make a film, and tells the gateman, “Remember me? I did a picture here once called The Horn Blows at Midnight.” “Remember it? I directed it!” the gateman replies.) With a star who spent the rest of his life making jokes about it that made it sound worse than Plan Nine from Outer Space, I wasn’t prepared to like The Horn Blows at Midnight when I first saw it in the San Francisco Bay Area on the local UHF station Channel 44’s week-long tribute to Benny right after his death, but it turned out to be a screamingly funny comedy, nicely balanced between sophistication and slapstick (including quite a lot of Harold Lloyd-ish “thrill” slapstick, though no doubt Benny had a stunt double for the kinds of scenes Lloyd in his prime could have done himself with no problem) with an audacious premise. It opens in a radio studio, with a bored studio trumpeter (Jack Benny) playing in a band behind the ridiculously pompous opera singer “Madame Traviata” (Margaret Dumont) sponsored by a preposterous product called “Paradise Coffee.” 

The gimmick behind Paradise Coffee is that it’s so decaffeinated it’s actually being sold as a sleep aid, and as the unctuous announcer proclaims this aspect of the product the bored Benny, who’s been getting out his frustrations over the assignment by blowing horse-laughs through his trumpet at Dumont (so violin wasn’t the only instrument Benny played badly on screen!), falls asleep and dreams he’s the angel Athanael, sent by “The Chief” (Guy Kibbee) to Earth to blow the signal for its destruction. He’s given a magic trumpet and told that in order to fulfill his mission to wipe out Earth he’s supposed to blow it precisely at midnight on New Year’s 1946 — 11:59 or 12:01 won’t do — and of course he gets sidetracked by various characters, all of whom have real-life counterparts on his show: his girlfriend/fellow angel Elizabeth (Alexis Smith), who wangles him a second chance the following day after he blows the deadline; gentleman thief Archie Dexter (Reginald Gardiner), a character writers Aubrey Wisberg, Sam Hellman and Jerome Kern clearly based on John Barrymore’s role in Grand Hotel; his girlfriend Fran Blackstone (Dolores Moran, the “other” new star besides Lauren Bacall Warners introduced in the trailer for To Have and Have Not — Bacall, of course, went on to marry that film’s star, Humphrey Bogart, and have a major career of her own; Moran was pretty much forgotten — undeservedly so, if her work here is any indication); two fallen angels, Doremus (John Alexander) and Osidro (Allyn Joslyn), who blew a previous mission to Earth and as a result are condemned to undergo a painful twitch every hour on the half-hour (and, of course, are fated to go “down there” when they reach the end of a normal Earth life span); a diner proprietor to whom Athanael loses the trumpet when he runs up a $3 charge he can’t pay (he seems totally unfamiliar with the whole concept of money) and his son, played by the young Robert Blake, who at the time was a child starring in the Our Gang short comedies at MGM. 

It all comes to a great climax in which Athanael is trapped inside a giant-sized version of the Paradise Coffee logo, constantly being drenched with coffee, cream and sugar, and nearly knocked off the building by the giant prop spoon that delivers the sugar to the cup when … he awakens and finds, in a marvelous closing gag, that the announcer’s hypnotic spiel extolling the sleep-inducing qualities of Paradise Coffee has put everybody in the studio to sleep: the musicians, the soloist, the producer, the engineer and the entire staff — until he calls out in clarion tones, “Then you wake up!,” and everyone does so. The Horn Blows at Midnight is a screamingly funny film and a great example of one of the things I admire about Jack Benny — that he didn’t just recycle his radio characterization the way most radio stars (especially radio comedians) did when they made movies. Instead he took on nervy projects like Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (a farce comedy about Nazi occupation, which sounds like the sort of stupid idea some desperate screenwriter would come up with but in fact has been the subject not only of a Lubitsch masterpiece but also Mel Brooks’ surprisingly good — and surprisingly close — remake in 1983) and The Horn Blows at Midnight, and this time he came up with a surprisingly good film (its real director was the veteran Raoul Walsh, who did not get bounced down to being a studio gateman but actually had another decade or so ahead of him as a director) that didn’t deserve either its box-office failure then or the opprobrium heaped on it, mostly by its star, over the years. — 1/3/18